After initial training under Jean Restout, Jean-Baptiste Deshays won the Prix de Rome in 1751 in François Boucher’s studio. After his return from Italy in 1758, he became Boucher’s son-in-law. Artistic and family inheritance thus allied, one can easily imagine how much the work of his elder could have influenced that of Deshays, even if they tended towards subjects which were often very different.
Our work is typical of a lively decorative rocaille art of which Boucher was one of the masters and which Deshays illustrated with equal brio in spite of a very brief career. One can easily associate our painting with two Collections of Fountains (Recueils de Fontaines) by Boucher, engraved and published by Huquier in 1736 and 1738. They each consisted of seven drawings which were dispersed by Huquier at an auction in 1771. In them, Boucher arranged lively compositions in which the fountain motif is simply a pretext for scattering seashells everywhere for water to trickle midst a tangle of naiads, dolphins, tritons, and putti.
Accustomed to producing grisaille oil sketches, Deshayes displays a vigourous energetic brushstroke here which has more contrast than do Boucher’s and which helps set the composition in motion. The fountain is formed by a pedestal from which water escapes through a grotesque mask. It trickles over a shell held up by three tritons before surging out of the beak of a swan with a long curving neck. Two putti wrestle in the scallop shell. One can detect here the influence of Italian artists such as Bernini and Borromini whose work Deshays saw and whose fountains he must have drawn in Rome between 1754 and 1757.
Here Deshays works up contrasting values in blends of white with natural raw umber. The perceptible red ground warms shadows and the artist doesn’t linger over precise definition of forms. The illusive aspect of the motifs encourages a global overall reading and emphasizes the decorative effect. The twisted knotted muscular figures of tritons evoke those in the sketch for the Cadaver of Hector Exposed on the Banks of the Scamandre (location unknown). The two putti can be found elsewhere, for example in the sky of Pygmalion Seeing his Statue Come Alive (Tours, Museum of Fine Arts). Their position playing in the basin is a direct citation from certain plates in Boucher’s Collection of Fountains.
Although we don’t know any other drawings of fountains by Deshays at the moment, old sources confirm their existence. Thus one finds a “Project for a Fountain” in pen and sepia wash in the artist’s post-mortem sale, March 26th, 1765, and a fountain with a “hardy brushstroke in pen and sepia” in the Lebrun Sale of December 23rd, 1771 (lots 21 & 22).
• A. BANCEL, Jean-Baptiste Deshays (1729-1765), Paris: Arthena, 2008
• A. LAING, Les dessins de François Boucher, exhibition catalogue, New York,
London, Paris: Scala, 2003, n° 79
• M. SANDOZ, Jean-Baptiste Deshays, (1729-1765), Paris: Éditart-Quatre